Big shrimpin'

Embracing Lent, a crustacean-craving Catholic digs into the city's best breaded wonders.

I never missed a Sunday Mass until I went to college, but nowadays, I’ve become an Easter Catholic: lazy enough to miss a whole month of Sundays, but cunning enough to show up early on Christmas and Easter to steal prime pew real estate from regular churchgoers.

Despite my spotty Mass attendance, I’ve still maintained the traditional Lenten fast, an abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday (which was the 21st this year) and Holy Saturday (day before Easter), and every Friday from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday. Traditionally, this means I and the other 2.4 million Catholics in Chicagoland go on an unfettered carb binge of PB&J or mac and cheese.

This year, I decided to change things up. Considering Chicago has as many great shrimp houses as Wisconsin does VFW fish frys, I waded through the waters of 14 local spots (six didn’t make the cut because of sins like overbreading or not deveining) in search of Chicago’s best fried shrimp. 

The best
Southside Shrimp House
(335 W 31st St, 312-567-0000)
Located a couple of Pauly Konerko dingers away from U.S. Cellular, this is the field of dreams for shrimp-lovers. The biggest sins committed by shrimp houses are overbreading, overcooking and underseasoning, and this spot averts all three. The “southside”-style shrimp, dotted with garlic and spice, are butterflied and lightly breaded before frying, ensuring a light, fluffy texture.

Runner-up
Snappy’s Shrimp House
(1901 W Irving Park Rd, 773-244-1008)
Snappy’s uses robust white gulf shrimp, not puny farm-raised fare, and it pairs them with one of the best mild dips in town, a sauce reminiscent of barbecue with a hint of clove and cinnamon. Sporting a West Loop–style brick-and-timber loft interior, this is also one of the few places where you can sit and eat your catch.

The contenders
Troha’s Shrimp and Fish House
(4151 W 26th St, 773-521-7847)
Before Little Village became the Mexico of the Midwest, Troha’s made it the New Orleans of the Midwest. Open since 1920, it claims to be the first shrimp house in Chicago. In that time it’s learned a few lessons, and the lightly battered shrimp served among a treasure trove of nautical bric-a-brac are fried up by a motley crew of deckhands. No one’s revealing the secret ingredient, but as a hint, the woman who works the register has love tattooed on her fingers.

Mr. Shrimp
(7157 W 63rd St, 773-586-9000)
Those who bemoan the loss of historical culinary gems should hop on over to Mr. Shrimp for an old-school Chicago fix. For 53 years it’s been serving golden-fried gems flecked with herbs and spices, and nothing more than the grease in the fryer has changed since day one.

Goose Island Shrimp House
(1011 W Division St, 312-642-3640)
If it’s good enough for Michael Clarke Duncan, the hulking star of The Green Mile, then it’s good enough for you. There’s a kitschy shelf of photos featuring Duncan standing in front of the fryer (and one of Steve Harvey placing an order), as well as cheesy family photos of folks in frilly ’70s prom regalia, but the real attraction is the price: At $4 a half-pound, this is Chicago’s best shrimp value.

Calumet Fisheries
(3259 E 95th St, 773-933-9855)
At the spot where Jake and Elwood Blues once jumped their Bluesmobile over a moving drawbridge, you’ll also find Chicago’s best smoked chubs, dubbed by one local as “fish crack.” This spot’s fried shrimp, redolent with the perfume of well-seasoned oil, is just as addictive.

Frank’s Chicago Shrimp House
(4459 S Archer Ave, 773-523-4624)
For 22 years, counterman Michael Yarbrough’s been breading and deveining piping-hot, Chicago-style garlicky prawns to order. In the ’60s, this spot was coated in teak wood and decorated like the prow of an antique wooden ship, but nowadays the only nod to a seafaring past amidst the stark white interior is a photo of the Goodrich company’s Chicago shipping docks circa 1899.

Grand Avenue Shrimp House
(5358 W Grand Ave, 773-622-1890)
This West Side spot provides game mavens a treasure trove that includes Ms. Pacman, Galaga and a pinball machine while they wait. Like Goose Island, the shrimp are a great value at four bucks per half-pound, but you have to appreciate your catch breaded on the thicker side.

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